Mapping St Helena’s Biodiversity and Natural Environment

In 2016 Environmental Management Division (EMD) successfully secured Darwin Plus funding, for a two years project, for mapping the terrestrial ecosystem; which included using remotely sensed satellite imagery to produce a highly detailed habitat map for the whole of St Helena. And since April 2016, EMD has been working steadily with it’s project partners, Environment Systems, Aberystwyth University and SAERI.


St Helena has a rugged volcanic landscape, sub-tropical climate and varied topography. The islands vegetation consists of lush green interior, encompassed by agricultural land, scrub and coastward dry barren areas and is home to one third of the UK overseas territories endemic species. Since visitors first arrived, the islands sensitive ecosystems have been modified and exploited resulting in the loss of endemic species and fragmentation of habitats.

In 1981 a report written by the Land Resources Development Centre entitled “The Land resources and agro-forestall development of St Helena” included a series of island-wide maps relating to land use and the environment. Since the maps were produced, changes to parts of the island, including the building of the airport and the removal of flax, mean that these maps are out of date or need improvement.

Over the years a wealth of environmental data has been collected by organisations and individuals looking to utilise available land and natural resources as well as conserve the islands natural heritage and biodiversity. But accurate island-wide detailed vegetation and soil mapping and derived datasets are urgently required to help understand biodiversity, species (particularly endemic) geographic distribution, protect and restore native habitats, control invasive species, aid sustainable agriculture, land resource planning and water resource management.

Existing data comprises of 35-year old maps, localised and targeted data collection, disparate datasets and historical paper reports. Establishing a ‘living map’ for the island, using remote sensing, field-based surveying and a terrain model, will provide a detailed broader geographic baseline facilitating future updates.

Description of the project

The main aims of the project include production of a series of maps, datasets and a ‘living map’ of some of the environmental conditions on St Helena, using historical and current information and creating a baseline and a series of snapshots in time.

Due to the terrain and difficult access, accurately field surveying the entire island is unfeasible; use of multi-spectral remotely sensed imagery provides a practical solution for creating initial land cover, vegetation and soil classifications. Satellite imagery will be used to create initial classifications and supported by field investigation and existing data. Recent work with St Helena’s environmental and geospatial data has resulted in a good understanding of what relevant information already exists in SHG departments and local organisations.

Project partners

Environment System LTD

UK consultant Environment Systems will be assisting with the vegetation and habitat mapping across the island, using satellite imagery that allows us to see beyond the visible range of the human eye and into the near infra-red. It is hoped that this information will be used in land and resource management, invasive species management and species protection work on St Helena.

Aberystwyth University

Aberystwyth University will be assisting on mapping the soil conditions across the island and looking at soil carbon and composition, soil moisture, chemical analyses and textures, soil stability and erosion potential and even some possible microbial analysis.
Historical soil and vegetation data and aerial imagery from 1989 (including infra-red imagery) plus new data identified will be assessed for value and processed in accordance with requirements of the IMS-GIS Data Centre before incorporation into preliminary maps with a wider environmental services remit. Following the creation of preliminary maps, a period of ground-truthing will take place by the project team, field workers and local conservation staff. Representatives from Environment Systems and Aberystwyth University will travel to St Helena for initial ground-truthing and data collection, including training local field workers where necessary. The results from the ground-truthing will be fed back into the preliminary maps to refine and improve image classification to generate a more accurate series of maps. Project staff, stakeholders, and AIG will benefit from training and workshops on field survey techniques, species identification for vegetation mapping, soil sampling for soil mapping, understanding satellite imagery, using data for ecosystem service analysis, GPS for field surveying; best practice for data collection Final outputs will be a series of static maps plus numerous georeferenced layers built into a ‘living map’ of St Helena, to which all stakeholders would have access. Specific focus will be on mapping, modelling and developing management tools for control of invasive species, water retention in vegetation and soils, soil quality and potential for habitat restoration and conservation.
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